On 17 January, Jess Sargeant attended a Constitution Unit seminar entitled The Independent Commission on Referendums: who, what, why, and how. The aim of the event was to discuss the work of the Commission, which has no affiliation to any political party or campaign groups, but which does receive research support from the Constitution Unit. The session sought to identify some of the referendum-related problems that the Commission would have to grapple with. This post sets out the main talking points of the seminar.
The Independent Commission on Referendums was established by the Constitution Unit in August 2017 to review the role and conduct of referendums in the UK. The Commission consists of 12 distinguished members representing a range of political opinions, with expertise extending across all the major UK referendums of recent years. The Commission first met in October 2017 and meets monthly to deliberate on the issues. It will produce a report and detailed recommendations in summer 2018.
On Wednesday, the Constitution Unit held a seminar about the work of the Commission. Speakers included the Commission’s Chair, Sir Joe Pilling; its Research Director, Alan Renwick; and Sue Inglish, who is both a Commission member and former Head of Political Programmes at the BBC. The aim of the event was to inform the audience about the key issues that the Commission aims to address and to gain audience members’ feedback on them. Sarah Baxter, Deputy Editor of the Sunday Times, also spoke, giving an outsider’s perspective of the Commission’s task along with her reflections on past referendums.
Sir Joe Pilling
Commission chair Joe Pilling began by reflecting on the previous Commission on the Conduct of Referendums, established twelve years earlier by the Constitution Unit. He praised its influential role in establishing the first referendum regulation in the UK, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. However, he said that the many changes in environment that have occurred since then had created the need to look at these issues again. The Independent Commission on Referendums was established for this purpose. He said that in light of recent referendums many have been quick to dismiss the idea of holding one ever again. But there are certain constitutional changes, particularly in relation to Scotland and Northern Ireland, that could not take place without one.
Sir Joe went on to describe the impressive expertise of members of the Commission, and their diverse perspectives and experience. He reiterated the independence of the Commission from government, political parties, and the Constitution Unit, although he noted the Unit’s central role in providing detailed research on which the Commission can deliberate.
Next, the Commission’s Research Director, Dr Alan Renwick, outlined the five points in the Commission’s terms of reference:
- the place that referendums should have in the UK’s system of representative democracy;
- the legal effect of referendums and whether any additional constitutional safeguards are needed;
- the role of government during the campaign;
- the regulation of the designated campaign groups;
- the provision of public information and education, and promotion of informed debate.
He went on to highlight some of the key questions the Commission is considering in relation to these, some of which have been explored in previous blogposts. These involve, for example:
- how regular a role referendums might play within our democratic system;
- how representative and direct democratic processes might relate to each other;
- whether a one-off majority of just over 50% should be sufficient to implement fundamental constitutional change or some more rigorous requirement should be set;
- to what degree governments should be prevented from intervening in support of one side of a referendum debate, and how such a restriction should be enforced;
- whether there could be merit in designating more than one campaign group on each side of a referendum debate;
- whether quality information can usefully be provided in ways that are neutral and seen as legitimate by voters and campaigners.
Commission member Sue Inglish gave her perspective on the work of the Commission. She described the Commission as ‘intense and fascinating’ and ‘collaborative and positive’, which she said was particularly remarkable given the wide range of opinion held by its members.
Turning to the issues, she said that the Commission’s central task was to consider how referendums fit into UK democracy, and how they can play a positive role. Drawing on her experience at the BBC, she spoke of the particular challenges that binary referendums pose to broadcasters seeking ‘broad balance’, because of the polarising effect upon political debate that referendums have. She highlighted the difficulty of determining the veracity of long-term forecasts, like those made prior to the EU referendum, and the problems of psychological effects such as confirmation bias in the public reception of information. She raised doubts about the viability of a neutral arbiter of truth.
Sue proceeded to discuss new forms of media, which in contrast to traditional media, are subject to little or no regulation during referendum campaigns. She demonstrated the scale on which campaigns had used social media in the EU referendum, and raised the prospect of introducing regulation in this area. She identified political advertising, the use of data to target advertising, and the accuracy of news shared online as key issues to be addressed by the Commission.
Sarah Baxter, Deputy Editor of the Sunday Times, opened by stating that referendums were, from the point of view of the media, a ‘blood sport’: they draw attention and energise readers, but they also polarise opinion. Such polarisation, she said, was suited to tabloid media but even more so to social media, where controversial topics go viral very quickly. She argued that printed campaign material is now redundant, as it is no longer read by voters. Online advertising is, she suggested, now much more important. However, she suggested that any attempt to ban or tightly constrain it would fail to address the concerns that have been raised, as content would still spread organically.
She also explored the issue of whether referendums should be subject to added safeguards, such as thresholds higher than the usual 50%. She agreed with other speakers that supermajority thresholds could provoke volatile reactions if they prevented a majority from getting its way. She argued that developing a process involving multiple referendums on the same question would be unlikely to settle an issue, as debate would continue: it would not stop because of a vote.
She closed by remarking that referendums can distort an argument; the key question, she said, was in what circumstances it is worth incurring this cost.
The Unit is grateful to all four speakers for sharing their thoughts on the challenge ahead It is also grateful to those who have contributed to the work of the Commission so far through recent expert and public consultations. The event was very well attended, without a single empty chair. It is hoped that the Commission’s report, to be published in summer 2018, will go some way to addressing the issues raised, and pave the way for improvements to the role and conduct of referendums.
The Commission is keen to hear your thoughts on the questions within its remit. If you would like to express your views, please do so by filling in its public consultation form. The deadline for submissions is 15 February 2018.
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About the author
Jess Sargeant is a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit. She is currently working with Alan Renwick on the Independent Commission of Referendums.